United States District Court, W.D. New York
DECISION AND ORDER
G. LARIMER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
appeals from a denial of disability benefits by the
Commissioner of Social Security (“the
Commissioner”). The action is one brought pursuant to
42 U.S.C. §405(g) to review the Commissioner's final
26, 2012, plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental
Security Income, alleging an inability to work since November
2, 2010. After that application was initially denied,
plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held before
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Michael W.
Devlin. The ALJ issued a favorable decision on March 11,
2014, concluding that plaintiff was disabled under the Social
Security Act. (Dkt. #8 at 81-86). The Appeals Council, on its
own motion, subsequently reversed the March 11, 2014 decision
and remanded the matter, finding that the ALJ had improperly
translated the plaintiff's “moderate”
limitations in relating adequately with others and dealing
with stress into an RFC that included the complete inability
to interact appropriately with others, as well as the
inability to work in [even] a low stress work environment.
(Dkt. #8 at 88-91).
January 28, 2015, the ALJ issued a second decision, this time
concluding that plaintiff was not disabled. (Dkt. #8 at
9-17). Plaintiff appealed that decision to the Appeals
Council, and it became the final decision of the Commissioner
when the Appeals Council denied review on March 30, 2016.
(Dkt. #8 at 1-3). Plaintiff now appeals from that decision.
The plaintiff has moved (Dkt. #11), and the Commissioner has
cross moved (Dkt. #13) for judgment on the pleadings pursuant
to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(c). For the reasons set forth below,
the plaintiff's motion is denied, the Commissioner's
cross motion is granted, and the Commissioner's decision
that plaintiff is not disabled is affirmed.
of whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the
Social Security Act requires a five-step sequential
evaluation. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S.
467, 470-71 (1986). See 20 CFR ''404.1509,
404.1520. If the ALJ concludes that the claimant is not
engaged in substantial gainful employment and suffers from a
severe impairment, the ALJ examines whether the
claimant's impairment meets or equals the criteria of
those listed in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Regulation No. 4.
If the impairment does, and has continued for the required
duration, the claimant is disabled. If not, analysis proceeds
and the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional
capacity (“RFC”), which is the ability to perform
physical or mental work activities on a sustained basis,
notwithstanding limitations for the collective impairments.
See 20 CFR §404.1520(e), (f). If the
claimant's RFC permits him to perform relevant jobs he
has done in the past, he is not disabled. If not, analysis
proceeds to the final step, and the burden shifts to the
Commissioner to show that the claimant is not disabled, by
presenting evidence demonstrating that the claimant
“retains a residual functional capacity to perform
alternative substantial gainful work which exists in the
national economy” in light of his age, education, and
work experience. See Rosa v. Callahan, 168 F.3d 72,
77 (2d Cir.1999) (quoting Bapp v. Bowen, 802 F.2d
601, 604 (2d Cir.1986)). See also 20 CFR
claimant's alleged disability includes mental components,
at steps 2 and 3 the ALJ must apply the so-called
“special technique” in addition to the usual
five-step analysis. See Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d
260, 265 (2d Cir. 2008). If the claimant is found to have a
medically determinable mental impairment, the ALJ must assess
the claimant's degree of resulting limitations in four
broad functional areas: (1) activities of daily living; (2)
social functioning; (3) concentration, persistence or pace;
and (4) episodes of decompensation. See 20 CFR
§404.1520a(c)(3). If and how the analysis proceeds from
that point depends upon the degree of impairment found.
However, the ALJ must document his analysis, and his written
decision must “reflect application of the technique,
and…‘include a specific finding as to the degree
of limitation in each of the [four] functional
areas.'” Kohler, 546 F.3d 260 at 266
(quoting 20 CFR §404.1520a(e)(2)).
Commissioner's decision that a plaintiff is not disabled
must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence,
and if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.
See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Machadio v.
Apfel, 276 F.3d 103, 108 (2d Cir. 2002). Substantial
evidence is defined as “more than a mere scintilla. It
means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)
(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305
U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). “The Court carefully considers
the whole record, examining evidence from both sides
‘because an analysis of the substantiality of the
evidence must also include that which detracts from its
weight.'” Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770,
774 (2d Cir. 1998) (quoting Quinones v. Chater, 117
F.3d 29, 33 (2d Cir.1997)). Still, “it is not the
function of a reviewing court to decide de novo
whether a claimant was disabled.” Melville v.
Apfel, 198 F.3d 45, 52 (2d Cir. 1999). “Where the
Commissioner's decision rests on adequate findings
supported by evidence having rational probative force, [this
Court] will not substitute our judgment for that of the
Commissioner.” Veino v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d
578, 586 (2d Cir. 2002).
The ALJ's Decision
the ALJ found that the plaintiff had severe impairments,
consisting of bipolar disorder, panic disorder with
agoraphobia, depressive disorder and anxiety disorder, which
did not meet or equal a listed impairment. Applying the
special technique, the ALJ found that plaintiff has no
restrictions in activities of daily living, moderate
difficulties in social functioning, moderate difficulties
with regard to concentration, persistence or pace, and has
experienced no episodes of decompensation. The ALJ determined
that plaintiff retained the RFC to perform a full range of
work at all exertional levels, but with the following
nonexertional limitations: can understand, remember and carry
out simple instructions and tasks, but can only occasionally
interact with coworkers and supervisors and never interact
with the general public. Plaintiff is able to work in a
low-stress environment with no supervisory duties, no
independent decision-making required, no strict production
quotas, and minimal changes to work routine and processes. He
can consistently maintain concentration and focus for up to
two hours at a time.
chiefly argues that the ALJ erred when he found that
plaintiff could “occasionally” deal with
supervisors and coworkers but could “never”
interact with the general public, when there was no basis in
the record for differentiating between the two groups.
Specifically, plaintiff notes that the medical source
statements of record all indicated that plaintiff would have
only “moderate” difficulties in dealing with
both the general public and supervisors and
coworkers. See Dkt. #8 at 72 (October 11, 2012
opinion of reviewing psychiatrist Dr. M. Apacible, noting
that plaintiff is “moderately limited” in his
ability to interact appropriately with the general public,
and to get along with coworkers or peers); 422 (September 24,
2012 opinion of examining psychologist Dr. Christine Ransom,
noting “moderate difficulty . . . relat[ing] adequately
Court concurs. While there is substantial evidence in the
record to support a finding that plaintiff has
“moderate” limitations in relating adequately to
others and handling stress, the ALJ fails to sufficiently
support or explain his finding that plaintiff could have no
contact with the general public (rather than occasional
contact, as with coworkers and supervisors). See
generally Winn v. Commissioner, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS
9987 at *30 (N.D.N.Y. 2017) (moderate limitations in
appropriate interaction are appropriately accounted-for by a
limitation to “occasional interaction with co-workers,
supervisors, and the general public”); Frost v.
Colvin, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93439 at *4-*5 (W.D.N.Y.
2017) (collecting cases, and noting that a limitation to
occasional or limited contact with others is sufficient to
account for moderate limitations in social functioning).
because the RFC described by the ALJ was erroneous only to
the extent that it may have incorporated greater
limitations than are supported by the evidence of record
rather than fewer, that error is harmless. It is axiomatic
that if a position can be performed by a person who is
incapable of interacting with the general public, it can also
be performed by an individual who is limited to no more than
“occasional” public interaction. As such,
plaintiff would have been found “not disabled”
even if the ALJ had adopted the medical source statements
verbatim and found that plaintiff's moderate difficulties
in social interaction allowed him to occasionally (rather
than never) interact ...